TALLAHASSEE (CN) – The NAACP, the League of Woman Voters and a former assistant Cabinet secretary for the Nixon and Ford administrations have challenged a state ballot proposal they say will give the Florida Legislature free rein to redraw political districts for its members’ advantage, and disenfranchise minority voters.
“Amendment 7 cannot be lawfully submitted to Florida voters because its ballot title and summary fail to advise the voters of the chief purpose and true effect of the amendment and constitute a classic case of ‘hiding the ball’ or ‘flying under false colors,'” according to the complaint in Leon County Court.
The plaintiffs say the ballot title is misleading because it purports to provide “standards” for redistricting, while “doing exactly the opposite.”
The Legislature put Amendment 7 on the ballot, which will require redistricters to “consider” some standards, after citizens qualified Amendments 5 and 6, which will require redistricters to actually use the standards, according to the complaint.
“In effect,” Amendment 7 “is intended to give the Legislature discretion to ignore any limits on its ability to draw districts with the intent to favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties,” the complaint states.
The action caps a yearlong debate over congressional and legislative redistricting in Florida.
In January, two citizen-backed initiatives on redistricting – now known as Amendments 5 and 6 – were certified by the defendant Florida Department of State for the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
Both amendments were intended to reduce or eliminate political favoritism in the drawing of congressional and legislative districts. Both prescribed standards to ensure that districts are not drawn to favor a political party or to abridge the voting rights of any racial or language minority.
But on April 30, the last day of the 2010 legislative session, Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature voted together on a resolution with a ballot title almost identical to that already on the citizen initiatives, calling it “Standards for Legislature to follow in legislative and congressional redistricting.”
The measure was assigned ballot position 7 by the Department of State and its co-defendant, Secretary of State Dawn Roberts.
The plaintiffs say the critical difference between the Legislature’s and the citizen-backed resolutions are that the Legislature’s proposal requires that those doing the redistricting merely “take into consideration” the ability of racial and language minorities to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.
Amendment 7 states that communities of common interest, other than political parties, may be respected and promoted, and that with its adoption, “districts and plans are valid if the balancing and implementation of the standards is rationally related to the standards contained in [the Florida] Constitution and consistent with federal law.”
Although the text of the proposed amendment and its ballot summary are nearly identical, the plaintiffs say, the ballot summary fails to inform voters that the chief purpose and effect of Amendment 7 is to limit the application of constitutional standards, including but not limited to those that would be placed in the state constitution by passage of Amendments 5 and 6.
They say the ballot summary fails to inform voters that by permitting the Legislature to “consider” – but not requiring that it implement – protections for minority voters, Amendment 7 would allow it to duck those provisions.
The plaintiffs add that by permitting the Legislature to “balance” standards, Amendment 7 will allow it to “continue to use redistricting to perpetuate political power by drawing districts with the intent to favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties.”
Finally, they argue Amendment 7 would subordinate standards to rules that are “permissive and vague and not mandatory.”
The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent the measure from being included on the ballot.
Plaintiffs include the Florida State Conference of NAACP branches, Adora Obi Nweze, The League of Women Voters of Florida, Deirdre MacNab, Robert Milligan, Democracia Ahora, Jorge Mursuli and Nathaniel Reed.
Reed, appointed by President Nixon to the Department of the Interior, in recent years has been one of Florida’s most ardent environmentalists, fighting for, among other things, the cleanup of Lake Okeechobee.
They are represented by Mark Herron with Messer, Caparello & Self, and Ronald Meyer with Meyer, Brooks, Demma and Blohm.